The legend goes that members of Treasure, maker of innovative old-school-ish games, were formerly members of Konami development teams. Sick of creating sequel after sequel, they vowed to create only new titles in their new company, ridding themselves of the tired rehashes they apparently felt they were taking part in. Sadly, this results in so very, very many fans wishing for sequels to masterpieces like Radiant Silvergun, Bangai-O, and Sin and Punishment. The developers Media.Vision (who later went on to create Sony's Wild Arms series) were undoubteldy huge fans of one of Treasure's early Genesis efforts, Gunstar Heroes, and decided an unofficial ripoff sequel was order. A capital idea all around, I'd say. The result is Gunner's Heaven.
Gunner's Heaven was one of the earliest PlayStation titles released. It did see a European release under the title Rapid Reload as a launch title no less, but got passed over by the general public in favor of the flashier 3D games. It never hit America at all as Sony was never too down with the whole 2D thing, especially early in the PlayStation's life. While I'm not sure if it would receive more respect had it been more widely distributed - it's not QUITE as awesome as Gunstar Heroes- it's certainly a gem of a game if you're into side-scrollers; and if you're not, what the hell are you doing here?
In spite of its general gameplay goodniess, it's still easy to see why this game didn't garner any attention, as neither the graphics nor sound are anything to write home about. There is a little bit of voice acting, but there's nary an anime cutscene or flashy intro in sight. Gunner's Heaven's presentation is definitely lacking - other than the slightly more detailed graphics due to the increased color palette, the game practically looks like a SNES title, complete with Mode-7 scaling and rotating bosses. Still, all of the action would probably have caused Nintendo's megahertz-challenged system to choke.
The game puts you in the shoes of Axel Sonics (the dude) and Ruka Hetfield (the chick), Wackily Named Commandoes At Large. Despite the usual tradition of games like these, Gunner's Heaven is only single player, so your Contra-buddy will have to sit this one out. The object is, of course, to run to the right (and occasionally up) and shoot pretty much everything in sight. As mentioned several times above, the game borrows liberally from Gunstar Heroes: wacky boss characters, huge multisegmented machinations, and the ability to toss enemies and hang on handlebars - even the animation is astoundingly reminscent. Quite welcomed is the ability to stand in one place as you aim while holding down the L2 trigger. You also get a grappling hook for reaching high places, although it's sadly underutilized.
Unlike the usual deal where selectable characters play exactly the same, Axel and Ruka actually have their own completely unique weaponry set making a total of eight weapons altogether, ranging from the usual machine guns and multi-directional cannons to flamethrowers and homing lasers. While many of these weapons will seem familiar to Gunstar Heroes vets, the system is entirely different. You have four weapons that can choose between at any time, in addition to a small supply of bombs. The biggest difference is how the weapons work - there's a timer on the screen that's constantly counting down, as timers often do. As long as you're above zero, your gun will be charged; however, when it hits the bottom, your weapon become sadly weak and flaccid. Certain enemies drop power-ups that increase the timer a few seconds, keeping you moving forward and shooting as much as possible.
Unfortunately, the weaponry system leads to the game's biggest fault. I think the point of having a timer count down was so you would attempt to destroy as much as possible in the least amount of time, so you'd still have power left when you reached the boss (where the timer spots.) But the distribution of power-ups is very unbalanced - sometimes you'll get tons of them at once, other times you'll come across huge streches where there's nothing. Furthermore, some enemies simply don't give enough charge, and it's almost to your benefit to just charge past them - why spend five seconds killing an enemy that only grants two seconds at time? At times the game teases you with an item that will fully charge you gun to maximum level, allowing you to really rip loose with them - but only for a few seconds. Why the designers would make a game designed around destruction and then cruelly limit you is simply mind-boggling - and God help you if your timer ever runs out in the middle of the game's heavier moments, as you'll be utterly creamed in no time. Still, as long as you keep yourself charged, the game will provide a reasonably challenge without being too maddeningly difficult. You get unlimited lives with a few checkpoints throughout each stage.
There are six levels total, with two levels deviating from the norm: one being a mine-chase on some kind of ultra-roller skate, the other being a trip through the skies on a jetpack. Most levels are also have at least three bosses that need to be crushed, most of which are somewhat inspired with the occasional bit of wackiness (the robot with a chassis of a British flag is by far the best.)
Gunner's Heaven actually succeeds pretty well for being what it is. It's full of fast paced action and lots of old-school goodness, although the goofy weapon system, absence of a two player mode and overall lack of inspiration from copying Treasure's classic do keep the game from attaining true classic status. But if you still can't wait for SNK to churn out more Metal Slug sequels, there's more than a lot to like in Gunner's Heaven.
Gunner's Heaven was released on Playstation Network for the PSP and PS3, but only in Japan.